June 7, 2006

A policy of grade deflation.

Is this any way for a university to seek to distinguish itself?


Elizabeth said...

Key sentence in the article: If a degree from a respected institution is a commodity, as well it might be at a time when annual costs at private universities are in the vicinity of $40,000, then grade inflation is a service being purchased.

Isn't is likely Boston U's grades are deflated2678 in comparison to the "You pays your fee, you gets your B" policies at the other schools?

Several of my colleagues have taught as adjuncts for extra money at one of the private universities in Uptown New Orleans, and a couple of them were told quite frankly that they were grading too strictly, that these were "good students" who expected better than a C in freshman composition and business writing.

On the other hand, I feel pressured not to have too many Bs or As in my comp and lower-level (non-major) lit courses, so there is something to the deflation idea, but given careful attention to exams and strict grading of papers, I don't have to manipulate my grades to meet that expectation.

Hamsun56 said...

Yes, I think it is fair for a university to set its own standards. A "tough" school will attract certain types of students and that in turn will create a distinctive institution.

As to grad school admission: Don't class rankings ameliorate grading discrepancies? I also assume that grad schools are aware of how various schools grade.

SteveR said...

My own experience at 48 years old, with a B.S. and M.S. in science has been that my GPA has never been a factor in any aspect of employment/career. Where I went to school, my degrees and work experience were the main factors, in addition to interview results and personal contacts/recommendations.

That said I realize its a problem for some. The "B" I earned in Minerology from Dr. Clay T. Smith at New Mexico Tech in 1976, was a crowing achievement that no ignorant HR person can ever take away. So I agree with Andrew.

yetanotherjohn said...

I remember my law school as being very strict about fitting to the curve. The top grade in the class would receive a 93. There were rumors (though it never happened in my case) that if someone wrote a truly impressive set of final exam answers, that the professor could show the result around to the other professors and by consensus hand out a higher grade, indicating a once in a decade level student.

In the one class that had objective scoring for the grade (multiple choice 50 question test on UCC), I missed one of the 50 questions. The person who got all 50 questions right received a 93. I and the other student who missed one question each received a 90. The students who answered 2 questions wrong got an 84 (an 85 being the bottom of the A's).

Now you could question how someone who got 100% of the questions right could get a 93 or how someone who got 96% of the questions right could get a B. But that was just how it was. If the top person had missed 10 questions, they would have received a 93. What you were comparing was not the amount of knowledge, but your relative position in the class. The curve buster did not exist because if the top person had missed no questions (earning them the 93) and the second person had missed 10 questions (earning them a 90), the curve of grades was maintained. The only exception would be in the case I mentioned that two scored equally. With an essay test, the professor would have used the overall impression to separate the two close students into a 90 and an 87. With the objective test, we both got the 90 and the 87 ‘slot’ was left vacant. The issue was that with approximately 30 students in the class, 3 of us would earn an A.

As one professor put it, ‘Half of you will be in the bottom 50% of the class’. Of course, other than those accepted under affirmative action or political pull, everyone was used to being in the top 10% of their class since grade school. The may literally never have seen a C in their entire academic career until law school. But the C they would earn in law school reflected less about their inherent brains than for that class, they were average. Being average in a very much above average group should be no shame, though some felt the ‘sting’ immensely.

The real issue is context. Which the inclusion of class averages helps to provide. Those class averages should also be provided for those where half the undergraduate grades are A’s. I would also add the distribution information so that you can judge where the person was relative to the rest, not just the average or median grade. If you provide context, then the grade inflation just fools the ignorant and compresses the range.

The bottom line is that you allow differentiation of your product. Yes, this person is intellectually very capable just to be admitted and graduate from this school. The school name on the diploma “means” something. On the other hand the same school name on the diploma accompanied by an ‘A’ average means something a great deal more.

Dave said...

Isn't there also a risk taken in assuming that someone who got all As is a more desirable employee than someone with less stellar grades?

Example: law firms often find themselves hiring inappropriate people who nonetheless graduated summa cum laude from top law schools.

Another example: Someone I knew when I was in college graduated with a 4.0 average, majoring in biology, scored a perfect score on the MCAT, and was denied admission to all the medical schools to which he applied.

Reason, as my friends and I surmised: his personality was such that he wouldn't have made a good doctor. A good research biologist perhaps, but not a good doctor.

I think many people overstate the importance of stellar grades. Stellar grades are not necessarily a proxy for being a good or desirable employee.

Patrick Martin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Patrick Martin said...

I didn't know Lake Woebegone had a university... ;)

The student seems to be suggesting that the quality of his "middle of the pack" work at his respected institution is identical to the quality of work by "top of the pack" students at lesser schools. In other words, his B.U. "C" shows equivalent academic scholarship as a State U. "A".

Taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that most students at the bottom-rung schools should receive "F"s, while most schools at the top-rung schools would receive "A"s, and the poor students going to your garden variety decent schools would all get "C"s.

Grades are necessarily comparative of students only within the school in which they are given. They measure your intelligence and effort against that shown by the peers with whom you chose to associate. If you chose to go to Harvard, then don't complain because it's harder to get an "A" there than at the local community college.

DRJ said...

It's probably easier to get an A at Harvard than a B at State U. That's a large part of the reason why I agree BU's grading probably hurts its graduates, especially those that apply to law and medical schools since those admissions are GPA sensitive.

It's interesting how the standards have changed. When I graduated from college 30 years ago, grade inflation at Harvard and other Ivy League colleges was roundly criticized for devaluing the degrees. Apparently grade inflation is so widely accepted that colleges are now criticized for trying to institute what was once a traditional grading standard.

LoafingOaf said...

Grades are necessarily comparative of students only within the school in which they are given.

At my law school it seemed like there was am ongoing, unresolved debate within the faculty and administration about grading, probably influenced by the grade inflation at another law school in the city. But it didn't bother me that that other school had massive grade inflation because you have the class rankings (plus most of the law firms in town are chock full of grads from my school - it might be a bigger problem if you're applying for a job with an employer who isn't too familiar with your school). What did sort of bug me was that in my first year I was in the section of my class that had two profs who were far harsher graders than the other sections had. I'm not really complaining because I look back now and am happy I had a couple of the old style profs who were like I imagined law school would be like before I got there (one made us stand up when called on for the first month!). It's just that when our section got a look at the grade postings of the other sections and saw how generous their profs were, well...it seemed like we had to work harder for the class rankings, and it's not always the case that all professors at a school are following similar grading policies.

Joan said...

Well, I'm horrified by the idea of strictly grading on a curve. Twenty years ago when I was at MIT, there were no curves that I was aware of, but there was an Institute policy of B-centering the grades. So the class average of any exam was an automatic "B", which I knew at the time was a kind of grade inflation. My first grad-level finance exam was such a horror that even though I only got about a third of all possible points, that still counted as a C.

I don't know how they justified the B-centering policy then, and I don't know if they still do it. As a student I heard a lot of guff about how since the school was so terrifyingly difficult (and it was), that B-centering made up for the differences between the 'Tute and every other pansy-ass school in America. One thing I do know is that the B-centering policy helped me a number of times, and I ended up with a quite respectable GPA.

It seems to me if the professor gives an exam that can be graded objectively, if you get 100% correct, you should score 100%, and if you score half correct, you should get 50%. It's so weird to me to assign people a place in a made-up heirarchy because there can only be so many As, so many Bs, etc. Why? Why can't a class be exceptionally bright, or exceptionally dim (or lacking motivation)?

I'm just really glad I'm not in college right now, and this entire discussion is chilling any of the remaining vestiges of the "hmmm, maybe I'll go for another degree" urges that have been stirring lately.

Ann Althouse said...

"It seems to me if the professor gives an exam that can be graded objectively, if you get 100% correct, you should score 100%..."

This is an illusion created by having a 100 point scale, and a reason why A, B, C makes more sense. What if the test is very easy, so that nearly everyone gets 90% or more? What if the test turns out to be extremely hard and the best in the class gets only 70%? And those are 2 sections of the same course in a 1L that will be competing against each other in the marketplace. It would be outrageously unfair not to curve.

On an essay test, there's no question of appearing to be perfect and deserving 100%. My exams are hard enough that I wouldn't give my own written out answer 100%. I use a raw point scale, where, assuming I've made the total available points 100, the top scorer might only get 70. And this wouldn't have me thinking everyone did terribly and deserves a low grade. It's completely normal and part of giving challenging tests. The grades are curved and my grades follow the same pattern as the grades in a class with a professor who wrote an easy question and had low expectations for the answers and thus ended up with higher raw numbers.

This is what we do to be fair!